Saturday, April 28, 2012

Going to California

I'm now committed.

On Friday my friend Pirooz, director of Shoplifting from American Apparel, signed a lease for an apartment in Los Angeles, California that he and I will move into in June, 2012. On that very same day — perhaps at the exact same moment — I signed a contract with New World Library to publish my next book There Is No God And He Is Your Creator. This could come out as soon as Spring 2013 or might be pushed back to Fall. We're not sure yet.

In the meanwhile, the audiobook of Hardcore Zen is on sale right now. Just in case you've forgotten.

And a new eBook collection called Hardcore Zen Strikes Again will be out any minute now. I think they're still working out some kinks in formatting. I realized I couldn't do it myself so the fine folks at Cooperative Press in Cleveland are handling that part. Up till now they've only done books about knitting. But Shannon, who runs the company, is a fan of my writing. So this will be their first non-knitting related title.

Hardcore Zen Strikes Again is a collection of essays I wrote for the old Sit Down and Shut Up webpage. Many of the articles I wrote for that page ended up reworked into chapters of Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality. Many did not. Others were so thoroughly reworked you wouldn't recognize them. It is articles from the latter two categories that I chose for Hardcore Zen Strikes Again. I've also included a chapter that was cut out of Hardcore Zen and an article I wrote for a Japanese monster fanzine consisting mainly of things I wrote about my work at Tsuburaya Productions that were also removed from Hardcore Zen. So the book is sort of like the bonus disc for Hardcore Zen. Hence the title. The essays are each accompanied by new introductions and afterwords talking about how my views on things have totally changed now and why the essays are shit.

Not really. But I am not nearly as loud in my writing as I was in 2001. I say pretty much the same stuff, just in a different way.

Those of you without Kindles or iPads or Nooks need not fret. There will be a print version as well. But the print version will be produced in limited quantities. Whether you'll be able to find it in stores or not is still an open question. Probably you will.

Going to California is a big move for me, and, in some ways a thoroughly stupid one. It's stupid because I could have saved myself a lot of hassle and just stayed in Los Angeles. But, really, things there at the time had become un-workable and I needed a change. It's also stupid because I'm now making way less money than I was when I moved away and am going to a place where the rent is more than twice what I'm paying in Akron.

But it's also a good move because I liked living in California. It's sunny. It's warm. It's L.A., with all the weirdness that means. I'm going to try getting a teaching gig out there or maybe work in the film industry. Pirooz has a company, which is mainly just him right now, called Sangha Films. Years and years before I ever met Pirooz I had the notion that maybe there could be a Buddhist sangha whose livelihood was supported by making movies. Lots of Buddhist sanghas support themselves with commercial endeavors. Some sanghas make tofu, some bake bread, San Francisco Zen Center runs a luxury tourist resort (Tassajara). So why not movies?

I'm hoping to talk Pirooz into moving in this direction with me. But every time I say something about it he just sort of grunts noncommittally. We'll see. I envision it as sort of a Zen version of Troma Films. Not in terms of the gore and splatter. But in terms of the way Troma is fiercely independent, knows its audience thoroughly, and makes its way in the world by producing movies that will never be big hits but always sell to its loyal core audience. Pirooz wants to make a zombie movie next. I'm trying to convince him to make it a Zen zombie movie. We'll see...

Every choice a person makes in life affects their future in ways large and small, foreseeable and unforeseeable. Even a smile or a frown can make a huge difference. But some decisions seem more momentous than others. Signing that book contract and committing to a huge move in the same day seem pretty momentous to me. To be honest, I'm scared shitless. Maybe a year from now you'll find me living in a cardboard box on Venice Beach trying to sell CD-Rs of my audiobook in order to buy burritos. But maybe not.

Sometimes you just gotta make a move.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Three Stooges

On Tuesday night I watched the new Three Stooges movie directed by the Farrelly Brothers.

I've been a big Stooges fan since I was a little kid and watched them on VOK (Voice of Kenya) in Nairobi. It was the publication of Moe Howard's autobiography Moe Howard and the 3 Stooges: The Pictorial Biography of the Wildest Trio in the History of American Entertainment that really sealed it for me, though. That book humanized the trio and I began to like them not just because they were funny, but for the story of who they were. Since then I've read everything I could find about the Stooges including not one, not two, but three biographies of Larry Fine, the Stooge in the middle. (One Fine Stooge: Larry Fine's Frizzy Life In Pictures is the best, by the way).

I attended a 9:40 showing at a multiplex on Akron's west side. I was the only one in the theater in which the Stooges film was shown. That was pretty weird. I've been to a few showings at such multiplexes where very few people showed up. But this was the first time I'd watched a movie in a theater completely alone. Would they have shown it at all if I hadn't been in there? Is this a koan?

I liked the movie but I didn't love it. I wanted to love it. But I couldn't. Here's what was good about the movie. Larry David was terrific as Sister Mary-Mengele, a nun who bears the brunt of most of the Stooges outlandish behavior. All of the actors who play the Stooges do a tremendous impressions of the real guys, particularly Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe. He really has the voice and the mannerisms down. And there were some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. I'm usually not the type who LOLs at movies even when there's an audience in the theater with me. But I actually laughed aloud several times during my private screening.

But maybe I came to the film with too many fanboy hopes. See, if I were to make a Three Stooges movie, I would recreate some of the iconic Stooge moments. I'd have Curly trap himself in a maze of pipes while trying to fix a leak. I'd have Moe do the Niagara Falls routine. I'd have them do the maharaja routine. I'd hire Samuel L. Jackson in a cameo to do Dudley Dickerson's "This house has sho' gone crazy" line. I'd get someone to say "Hold hands you love birds." I'd also put in some references to Shemp, Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita. There is one scene in the movie where a rat makes Shemp's trademark "Eep-eep-eep" sound. But that's as close as we get. Maybe I'd have them get a sandwich at De Rita's Delicatessen or have them meet a character who does Joe Besser's effeminate mannerisms and make something out of how that would play in the 21st century.

The Farrelly Brothers seem to understand that part of the key to the Stooges' humor is all about the lower classes making fun of the upper class. But they never really take it far enough. The representatives of the upper classes are bad people because they're plotting a murder. In the Stooges' films the upper classes were always just twits because they were twits. Not that the Stooges were intrinsically better. I think what I like best about the Stooges' films is that in them everybody is an idiot, even the main characters (the Stooges) you're supposed to identify with.

It's funny to see the Stooges portrayed as they were in the 1930s having to come to terms with contemporary American society — like having Curly try to use an iPhone and Moe getting cast on The Jersey Shore. But even these feel a bit half-hearted. Why not do a whole movie about this? It's never really explained why the Stooges alone dress, talk and act like people from the 1930s while everyone else exists in 2012. I kept wondering if these bits were left over from some unused version of the script in which the Three Stooges time travel to our era.

All in all, it's a good movie, but not a great one. Am I weird for thinking there actually could be a great movie about The Three Stooges?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dogen Sangha International Post Mortem

I'm going to keep posting commercials until everyone in the world buys a copy of the Hardcore Zen audiobook.

This one came out pretty good. This was a surprise because I'm working with iMovie, which is a pain in the butt compared to Final Cut. I used to use Final Cut. But now the program no longer works so I'm stuck with iMovie. iMove is made for dad to edit out the parts where little Molly drools on the dog and then upload it to YouTube and not much else. Bending it to do what I'm doing takes a certain amount of what feels to me like fooling the program into doing things it doesn't want to do.

Be that as it may. I was talking with Tim McCarthy, my first Zen teacher, yesterday about the demise of Dogen Sangha International (DSI) and about lineages in general. Tim pointed out that the Asian model for passing on lineages in things like Zen, the martial arts, tea ceremony and so on goes something like this. A teacher will often appoint several successors to whom he (or she, but I'll use he for now) gives his blessing to teach as part of his lineage. When the teacher wishes to retire or feels he's about to die, he will often single out one of these successors to inherit whatever that teacher has established in the form of a school. There may be property involved, there might be money, there might be a roster of students, teachers and other such members of that school.

In the case of DSI, the school was almost entirely conceptual. There was no property or money passed on to me and not even a list of members. The only property DSI may or may not have held were certain intellectual property items in the form of the copyrights to certain of Nishijima's written work in English.

I say "may or may not" because even this was never really made clear to me. However, I had long believed that if there was one thing all of Nishijima Roshi's dharma heirs agreed upon it was that some one person or entity should take charge of Nishijima Roshi's written work. There has been a hell of a lot of bickering about Nishijima Roshi's written material in English because he did not produce any of it by himself. He always worked with some native English speaker to turn his ideas into publishable English.

I had believed that all of this had been settled. I was well aware that a number of people were not entirely happy with the way it had been settled. But I had believed at least they accepted things. When I published my last blog I found out immediately that this was not true.

If I felt that Nishijima Roshi's written legacy in English might disappear unless I entered into the fray and fought for DSI to administer all of this material, I might be inclined to fight about it. But everything is available, even if there are several sources for it. What matters is that it's out there. Since this is true it doesn't seem important to me to spend any effort on consolidating things.

What has happened in DSI regarding this material is precisely what always happens when people produce some kind of collaborative piece of art without stipulating one single person or entity as the sole owner of that thing. This is why filmmakers these days are usually very meticulous about having everyone involved sign contracts specifically stating what sort of compensation they will receive and what, if any, rights of ownership they'll have over the finished product. You don't want some guy whose only role in Titanic was to go "Arrrrrggghhh!!" and fall off the ship to start saying he now owns the whole movie.

There are currently no legal versions of any of the Ultraman programs made between 1966 and 1974 available outside of Japan because of problems of this nature. Eventually all the animosity involved in this tore the original Tsuburaya Productions apart. None of the Tsuburaya family are involved in the company that now bears their name.

Some of you who like to post in the comments section appear to believe that, as far as spiritual organizations go, this situation is unique to Dogen Sangha. This is because Dogen Sangha is far more open about our own shortcomings than anyone else in this business. We don't have professional PR people, legal departments and so forth to promote a false image of solidarity like other spiritual organizations do. And trust me folks, they really do. Even the ones headed by those beatifically smiling faces you see on all the covers of the Buddhist mags. Especially them! This is one of the things I like about us. We are honest and open to a fault. It's one of the reasons Dogen Sangha will never be as "successful" as those other spiritual organizations. But in my way of thinking this is the true success of Dogen Sangha.

The issue of the matter of there being multiple successors with one person being singled out as a kind of special successor, or head successor, or whatever, will always be a problem for organizations like Dogen Sangha. The Western solution in many cases seems to be to either try to create some kind of legal framework around this process or to democratize it or both. That's how we handle things. That's how we arrogantly think things must be handled.

But Buddhism isn't like a government or a corporation. When you try to force it into that mold, it breaks. Lots of people will assure you this is not true. But they're mistaken.

Typically when one person is singled out as some kind of special successor in cases like these, the older members of the group refuse to accept him, those who joined around the same time as the newly appointed special successor may grudgingly agree to go along, and those who join after the appointment has been made simply accept it. This is precisely what happened with DSI.

I don't have any interest in trying to convince Nishijima Roshi's older students to accept me as their new dharma daddy. It's like asking me to join in a fight over who gets to eat the last chicken leg in the Col. Sanders bucket. I'm a vegetarian. I don't care who eats it.

I also have no desire to lead Dogen Sangha International. It's not fun. It doesn't make money. It doesn't make me a hit with the ladies. And worse than that it doesn't even help spread the teachings of Dogen. So why do it? That's a serious question that I have put to a number of people and I have never heard a single convincing answer.

Once when I was having some trouble with my little band of misfit meditators in Los Angeles, I went to see Mel Weitsman of the Berkeley Zen Center about it. After listening to me whine for a while, he asked, "What's your bottom line with your group?" I had never thought about it like that. I said that my bottom line was, "I sit zazen ever day. On Saturdays I invite other people to sit with me." And that was it. That's what was at the very bottom for me.

In that case if someone were to come on Saturday and start making a lot of fuss and noise, they'd be interfering with my bottom line and I'd ask them to leave. If they refused to go, I'd end the practice of opening my place to strangers.

As far as Dogen Sangha (International or otherwise) is concerned, I feel pretty much the same way. My bottom line is that I sit and you can join me if you want. Anything that interferes with that needs to be stripped away. Dogen Sangha International was interfering with that, and now it's gone.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Dogen Sangha International is No More

In one of my comments on the previous posting I said that I might dissolve Dogen Sangha International but not just yet.

 Well, I've thought about it some more and I've decided that now is the time to put the thing out of its misery. As of today April 20, 2012 at 7:00 PM Eastern Standard Time (USA), Dogen Sangha International is no more.

Any groups who wish to continue using the name Dogen Sangha may do so. Not that you need my permission anyway. And that's that.


 I've wanted to do this for a very long time. There's really no reason to wait any longer. I'm not retiring my position as a monk or discontinuing teaching Zen or anything like that. I'm simply ending Dogen Sangha International.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Betrayal of the Spirit

I just finished reading Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement by Nori J. Muster. This in spite of the fact that I have two Zen related books waiting patiently for me to review them. One's about Haukuin, the other is about the Heart Sutra. But, frankly, I'm more interested in what happened to the Hare Krishna movement.

In a nutshell, this book is the tale of Nori J. Muster who once went by the name Nandini and served as a key P.R. person for ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) during its most turbulent years, the late 70s through the late 80s. This was the time from right after founder A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada's death through the murders and violence depicted in the book Monkey on a Stick, which covers the debacle of New Vrindaban, the "Hare Krishna Disneyland" (they really called it that) in West Virginia.

The Hare Krishna story in short is that a charismatic, dedicated and sincere monk named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (the Prabhupada part was added later) came to American with something like $2.75 in his pocket and started a worldwide movement based on the ancient teachings he had studied and practiced throughout most of his life. Then he died without clearly naming a successor. The members of his movement have been fighting about this ever since, although things have settled down a lot in the past twenty years.

I can't find the precise quote because I borrowed the book from the library and didn't want to mark it up (though I liked it so much I'll be buying my own copy). But Muster quotes someone who said that Srila Prabhupada had two kinds of authority. There was the institutional authority conferred upon him by his spiritual master. This made him a monk and a teacher. This type of authority could conceivably be conferred upon anyone who went through the necessary steps to receive it.

The other type of authority Srila Prabhupada had was much more nebulous. It was a personal sort of authority that came through his particular personality and the strength of his commitment to his practice combined with all sorts of accidents of fate such as his coming to America in 1965 just when young people there were searching for gurus.

Not long before he died, Prabhupada named eleven men as having the power to initiate new disciples. Each was responsible for a different territory. But he was a bit vague as to whether these men were gurus like him or not. This has been a point of contention ever since. Be that as it may, Prabhupada could only confer institutional authority upon his disciples. He couldn't give them his charisma or his commitment to practice. And he sure couldn't pass on to them the accidents of fate that made what he did possible.

A few of the men among that group of eleven were extremely charismatic but insane. A few others lacked such charisma but were very sincere and tried their best to follow what Praphupada had taught. A couple of those failed spectacularly in their efforts, thus sullying the movement even more. Just two of these eleven men remained in positions of authority within ISKCON at the time Muster wrote her book (1997).

This is all fascinating to me because I find myself in much the same position as those eleven guys. There is a lot less at stake in Dogen Sangha International (DSI). We have no monetary assets at all, no "Palace of Gold" in West Virginia, no one selling our literature or our delicious cookies at airports. Dogen Sangha International is not even registered as an entity with any government agency anywhere. Dogen Sangha Los Angeles is. And I believe Dogen Sangha Bristol in England may be. Dogen Sangha (minus the international) in Chiba, Japan may also be. It's possible others are legally registered in France, Germany and Israel. I'm not sure. But if they are, they are just local entities using that name. DSI has no worldwide meetings to decide policy, no board of governors, no nothing. It's just a name, really.

Nishijima Roshi conferred a certain degree of what we might call "institutional authority" upon a number of his students, me included. Like Srila Prabhupada, Nishijima could not confer his personal authority upon anyone. The word authority here is problematic. But I'm using it here because I can't come up with a better term.

Nishijima also named me as president of Dogen Sangha International. But he never spelled out exactly what that meant. It was extremely important to him, though. And because it was so important to him I said "yes" even though I'm no clearer on what it means to be president of something that doesn't exist than anyone else is. I have resisted any attempts to make Dogen Sangha International anything more definite than it is. (Dogen Sangha Los Angeles, is something entirely different and I'm working toward establishing that as a religious non-profit corporation in the State of California. DSLA will have no authority over any other Dogen Sangha branch.)

In my book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate I wrote about what happened when that appointment was made. It was remarkably like what happened to the Hare Krishnas, but without anyone being beheaded by a mad disciple.

I've heard from dozens of people since that book came out telling me how things went precisely the same way in their aikido dojo when the master died, or in their church when the pastor passed on and so forth. It's an incredibly common scenario. It happened at the San Francisco Zen Center when Suzuki Roshi died and, to a lesser extent, at some of the temples Katagiri Roshi established after he died. Paul, Peter and James battled over whose interpretations of Christ's teachings were correct.

It happened after Buddha died too, according to Stephen Batchelor in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Batchelor believes that Maha Kashyapa, revered by many Buddhists (and pretty much all Zen Buddhists) as Gautama Buddha's rightful successor was more of a guy with political savvy who pulled the ranks together than someone who actually understood what Buddha was on about. In fact, Buddha is on record as telling his followers not to appoint a successor.

And this will happen again, many more times.

So why do guys like Gautama Buddha, Srila Prabhupada, Nishijima Roshi and so many others even attempt to set up these institutions? Are they so naive as to think that their institution alone won't go through what every single other one like it has gone through as far back as the beginnings of recorded human history?

Some of them may be that naive. But my guess is that most are not. Because institutions also manage to preserve these teachings even in spite of the power struggles and suchlike that always take place. We know what Buddha taught (or at least some approximation thereof) because of the institution that wily old politician Maha Kashyapa set up to preserve it. Had Buddha's followers actually taken his instructions not to appoint a successor to heart, we probably wouldn't know very much about Buddha today except as a minor philosopher in ancient India.

And there you have my dilemma regarding Dogen Sangha International, and why I am so wishy-washy as to what to do about it.

Answers on a postcard please.


And now yet another commercial for the new audiobook edition of Hardcore Zen!


Monday, April 16, 2012

Hardcore Zen Audiobook Part 2

Yep, folks, the audiobook version of Hardcore Zen is now available from the nice folks at CD Baby! Just follow the link below to get yours!

See what it did for Melissa? Here are a few more reasons to buy the audiobook:

I have personally enhanced the audiobook! Now you don't just have to imagine what "Drop the A-Bomb On Me!" sounds like. You can hear it for yourself in the context of the story! And that's not all. There are plenty of other groovy enhancements as well!

You may get an email directly from me! That's because track #9 is kind of screwed up. Until the replacement goes live, I'll be contacting everyone who buys the book and submits their email address to CD Baby to tell them where to get the fixed version. (The current version isn't horrible. It just has one short segment in which you can hear two Brad Warners reading instead of only one.) If you got the audiobook but didn't hear from me about the link, write me at

I get way more percentage of the audiobook than I do from the plain old printed book! Wisdom Publications gives me something like 14%. So when you buy the book from Amazon or a similar discount site that nets me less than $1 per book after all the other mystery items are subtracted. But I get something like a 75% royalty from each $10 audiobook. Granted, this is more of a reason I want you to buy the audiobook than any real advantage of the audiobook itself...

You get to hear me read the book in my own voice! Not only do I have a super sexy voice. But now you can find out what sort of tone I intended. I think a lot of people imagined I was screaming at them when they read that book. But I wasn't. I swear.

And thanks to everyone who participated in filming the new commercial "Melissa's Not a Loser Anymore!" (seen above) last night. These are the participants in my weekly Sunday night zazen thing at the Akron Shambhala Center in Cuyahoga Falls (every Sunday at 7pm!). They were awesome and very patient. Now I need to get myself a tripod and think of some more commercial ideas.

Friday, April 13, 2012


The Hardcore Zen audiobook has arrived! You can get it at CD Baby by following the link below:

Don't risk damaging your eyes and your brain doing old-fashioned style reading just like your grandma did back during the Gold Rush while sucking down a sarsparilla! Get with the times! Download the audiobook like a real 21st Century citizen.

People have been talking about an audiobook version of Hardcore Zen since 2003. But nobody did anything. Last year Smog Veil Records said they wanted to do it. So I went to Wisdom Publications and they said, "No. We want to do it!" So I waited around for like six months. After hearing nothing, I contacted Wisdom and they were like, "Oh we don't want to do it anymore." So I told them thanks for letting me know and said I was gonna do it myself and now HERE IT IS!

This is a real DIY piece of work. But for all that, it came out pretty good. That's because the quality you can get with cheap equipment at home is like twice as good as what you could get using a professional studio twenty or even ten years ago. Pirooz Kaleyah, director of Shoplifting from American Apparel, donated a Snowball microphone made by a company called Blue. I plugged that into my MacBook, opened up Garage Band and started reading the book.

I haven't read Hardcore Zen even silently to myself since before it was published. The last time I read it all the way through was when I had to proofread the final copy edited version just before it went to press. I've read bits and pieces of it since then. But not the whole book.

I still have mixed feelings about that book. It's OK. It might even be good. But it's not the book I wanted it to be.

I wanted Hardcore Zen to be an example of what it was about. I wanted it to be a punk rock book about punk rock. As it stands it's sort of a self-help book about punk rock.

As a punk rock book about punk rock it would have been rougher, less professional, and far less formulaic. It was intended to have digressive passages that just wandered off into nowhere for no discernible reason. I wanted it to meander> I wanted readers to be like, "what the fuck just happened?" Only one of those digressions actually made the cut.

In that particular digression, I wanted to describe some of the interesting things that have come up from my practice. Nishijima Roshi always said, "When you do zazen, you come back to your childhood." This is really true. At one point I kept getting flooded with memories of things that had happened very long ago. I started to understand that the way I had perceived and conceived of the world when I was two or three years old was more correct than the way I had learned to perceive and conceive of it as an adult.

One of those memories involved being in the back of an old VW bug, probably my grandmother's. Those cars had this weird storage space right behind the back seat, between the seat and the window. A little tiny kid could fit in there. And my memory was of being in there and looking out at the sky through the little oval back window. That space is so small there's no way I could have been more than three years old. Probably less. But something about the way things had looked to me that day came rushing back all at once.

So I wrote it down. But instead of telling the story in the first person, I told it in second person (i.e. "You are sitting in a VW bug" or whatever I said). Josh Bartok, my editor, really wanted to cut that out. But I held fast. He cut out a lot of other good stuff. But I wasn't going to let him take that one away. Still, he did move it to the end of a chapter where its placement was a little more "user friendly" and normal. Ah well...

My version of the book wouldn't have sold nearly as well. So it's fine.

I also realized, while reading the book aloud, why that book has sold so much better than my others. Recently I was told by somebody who is supposed to know about such things that my books would sell better if they were more "prescriptive."

I was like, "More what?"

Apparently that means you have to give life lessons. People love life lessons. This person told me that I should write out my stories of things that happened to me and then follow those up with, like, a little capsule lesson to take away from it. I went to the library and took out a bunch of books by the likes of Deepak Choprah, Joel Osteen and even our old buddy Thich Naht Hanh. Choprah and Osteen follow that formula to the letter. Every single chapter is set up exactly like that. First the story, then the life lesson. They even put the thing you're supposed to learn from this story in big bold letters so you can't possibly miss it. TNH's books don't follow the formula quite so closely, but it's in there with his writing as well.

As I read the book aloud I realized that in editing my manuscript, Josh Bartok had done precisely the same thing. He didn't change too much of what I wrote. He just moved the sentences and paragraphs around such that it went Story, Life Lesson, Story, Life Lesson etc. It follows the Joel Osteen, Deepak Choprah formula very closely.

This doesn't make it a bad book. It's fine. But it makes it a lot like a pretty standard self-help book. Except that it's not really a self-help book at all. It's way more practical than anything Osteen or Choprah ever wrote, and far more real. Deepak Choprah and Joel Osteen can eat my shorts. After they finish polishing the Mercedeses and winding their Rolexes. They're rich, but they suck. I'm poor as shit, but at least I don't suck.

The only parts of the book that made me squirmy were the little cheerleading style bits near the end. Basically the entire epilogue kind of made me want to barf a little bit. The book was meant to end with the story of eating the tangerine. It was supposed to stop right there. But instead, I was encouraged to write that little cheerleader section that ends it. And I did. So I can't blame anyone else for that. Maybe it's OK. Maybe people need that kind of thing.

All that being said, I still feel like it's a worthy book. It's a very polished, refined version of what I really wanted to say. The rough edges were sanded down and made pretty. But it's still mostly there.

I didn't change anything as I was reading. I feel like it should stand as it actually is. I hated what George Lucas did to the Star Wars movies and I don't even want to see how he messed up THX 1138. Those movies should stand as what they actually were. And so should Hardcore Zen.

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate is still a far superior book. I'm not sure if I could do an audiobook of that one, though. It's too intense. It's too personal. I might try it sometime. If I succeed, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I try to space these postings apart, leaving at least two or three days between them, so as not to wear people out. Last week I started uploading the new audiobook version of Hardcore Zen (see the cover to your left). My plan was for the next posting (i.e. this one) to be all about the audiobook. I invested my own time and cash into this project, so you'd best believe I'm going to be pushing it as hard as I can. All the haters who hate when I advertise anything (cuz that's sooo not Zen, maaaaan), get your hatred ready!

BUT it's taking forever -- at least in these highly speeded up times we live in -- for the thing to "go live" (as we say in the audiobook biz). I screwed up a few things. Plus the audiobook itself is way bigger than an ordinary CD. I made a CD version for my friend Jimi and it took up six discs! I have no plans to press any CDs of the audiobook, by the way. If anyone wants to suggest an economical way to make some CDs, hit me up. Or a cheap way to put it out on a boxed set of 18 record albums for that matter. Otherwise, it'll just be available as a download.

I've even got two commercials for the thing ready to go, and I'm going to shoot a third one on Sunday at the weekly 7 pm zazen thing I host at Akron Shambhala Center (133 Portage Trail Ste 202 Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44221).

Alas, I have to keep holding on to the posting in which I tell you the amazing story of how I recorded the audiobook and what I think of Hardcore Zen nine years after it was published.

But I will tell you something else and that is...


That's because I have been doing my taxes today. My annual income for 2011 was not quite as dire as I had feared. Which isn't to say it was really great. But it wasn't so godawful as I expected. When I looked at my yearly book royalty statements of $2,951.08 from New World Library for three books and $4,133.98 from Wisdom Publications for Hardcore Zen I was all like, "Jeez. That's what I earned last year?"

Kids, do not become a writer if you want to get rich. Yes there are a handful of writers who are filthy rich. But most of us are barely getting by.

As most of you know, I do not have a temple or a Zen Center or any other such organization that supports what I do Zen-wise. The so-called "Dogen Sangha" is basically just a name. There are some folks out in California working towards making it more than that by incorporating it as a religious non-profit. But at the moment it's still basically just a name. I think we're established as an entity. But we haven't got the paperwork that makes us a true non-profit that can accept donations yet.

However, what I do have is a little PayPal donation button on this here blog (it's to your left <<<). And I made more in donations last year than I did in book royalties. This is figuring in the donations I received while on tour in Europe and America. But still, the stuff coming in from that little button was not insignificant.

So thank you very much for that. There are several people who send in a little bit each month and that really helps. And sometimes someone sends me a large donation, which is always as nice as it is baffling. Because it's never someone I know and it's almost always someone from a foreign country that I've never visited.

I don't really like the idea of living on donations. I feel like a person ought to work to earn his keep. Donations seem like charity.

But on the other hand, I don't charge anything for this blog. The ad revenue it generates is negligible. If I were writing a column for a magazine I'd be getting paid out of what readers paid to buy the magazine. So it kind of amounts to the same thing. Only the way I do this, you get to cut out the middle men and send the money directly to the writer. So I figure these aren't really donations in that sense.

In my youth I was always disgusted by television evangelists begging for cash contributions on their shows while surrounded by the most gaudy opulent sets imaginable. You could tell those guys were getting filthy rich by promising rewards in Heaven.

But all religious type people live on donations. Your contributions aren't always going to buy fancy houses and multiple Mercedes Benzes. And there are some people out there who really don't mind supporting some religious dude's five-a-day luxury car habit. I don't get that myself. But I know they're out there.

I feel like honesty is the deciding factor. The Sex Pistols called their reunion tour the Filthy Lucre Tour to specifically emphasize that it was for the money. And yet you could see that they really enjoyed playing those songs again and that their messages were still relevant. So was it really just about the money? It didn't look that way to me.

I've been highly critical of certain filthy rich Zen Masters not because they got rich. God bless 'em for that! I've been critical because they got rich by being dishonest, by promising things they could not possibly deliver. By pretending that what they actually did deliver was something it was clearly not.

Even though I have no compunctions about getting paid for doing work, and even though I consider standing up on a stage talking for a few hours work (it's lots harder than it looks, trust me), I still get all creepy crawly feeling when I hear someone at a Buddhist temple I've spoken at reminding the crowd about the merit of "dana" -- Buddhist generosity. I know that speech is what's going to pay my gas money back home and maybe even buy me a burrito or a veggie burger. But it reminds me too much of the old televangelist con game or of some of the crud I hear spewing from the mouths of crooked phony Zen Masters.

So I remain deeply conflicted about the whole thing. Nishijima Roshi advised his ordained teachers never to try to make a living out of being Buddhist teachers. I've been trying to kind of skirt the issue by making my living as a writer. Yes, what I write about mostly is Buddhism, as well as about being a Buddhist teacher. But still, it's the writing I'm trying to live off of, not the teaching.

I dunno, folks. I just don't know...


And Crum the Cat thanks you too!

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Zazen is a Balance Pose

Someone wrote me this:

So I have a question relating to proper posture. I graduated from massage therapy school about a year and a half ago. It's taught me to be much more aware of my body, more cognizant of what's going on.

Recently I've noticed some unhealthy things going on with my zazen and I was wondering if you could help me pick the lesser of two evils.

I generally sit Burmese style on a crescent shaped zafu. This has started to really make my knees and ankles hurt. Not the kind of hurt you get from sitting zazen for 30 minutes; the kind of hurt you get when you're starting to damage a joint. It's difficult for me to get up and walk after sitting like this.

So I've been trying a seiza bench so that I can keep my knees on the ground. This doesn't hurt my knees or back too badly, but it makes my arms, wrists and hands very uncomfortable. In Burmese posture I rest my hands in the cosmic mudra on my lap. But on the bench I don't really have a lap, just my thighs that angle away from me toward the floor. This causes my hands to be kinda pressed into my belly above my belt buckle. It makes my shoulders rotate forward, putting undue stress on my rhomboids. At the end of a sitting I'm quite sore from my upper back all the way down to my fingers. My wrists pop loudly and end up very stiff.

So I'm wondering what to do. I can sit on a higher bench, with my legs crossed but my knees off the ground. This will alleviate my upper back and arm pain since my hands can rest in my lap. Or I can sit on the bench, with my knees touching the ground, and put my hands on my thighs without making the mudra.

Is one more desirable than the other?

I answered thusly:


I always have a hard time with questions like these because I've never had these kinds of difficulties.

The really crucial part of the zazen posture is keeping your spine straight -- that is, upright. You're not trying to make it unnaturally poker straight. It's a balance pose in which the spine is balanced on the hips. If you've done Tree Pose in Yoga, that's also a balance pose. But you're standing rather than sitting so it is very clear when you lose balance. In a seated balance pose, you can lose balance and not fall over.

So, I would say focus on that as your criteria. The full lotus posture is recommended because for most people, that's the best way to achieve a seated balance pose. But if this doesn't work for you, try adjusting your posture with your main criteria being to keep the spine balanced and erect. What happens with your legs and arms is less crucial. Although, I do believe the standard pose allows for energy to move through the body is a balanced way. So I would try getting as close to that as possible.



This is an example of how I deal with specific questions about posture when they are asked in a specific way by specific people. Giving general posture advice is much trickier because you never know who is reading you and how they're going to take it.

A lot of the general advice I see handed out these days about meditation and posture seems to be trying really, really, really hard to make it as user friendly and easy as possible. A lot of this advice makes it seem like you can sit any way you want to and everything will be just fine. It's very soft and huggy and sweet.

I'm never really sure what people are going for when they present it this way. A lot of times it feels to me like they're just trying to get butts in seats. The easier they make meditation seem, the more people will listen to them and this, in turn, makes their books sell better and gets more people in the door at their retreats.

But not everyone who presents it in this way is so mercenary. I've also seen teachers who are concerned that students not injure themselves. Like me, they have no way of knowing who might be reading what they write or watching their YouTube videos and suchlike. There's always the chance that someone out there in Internet Land or Book Reader Land or wherever either has some serious issue with their knees and legs or is just so gung-ho they're gonna force themselves into a posture they're not ready for. Rather than risk encouraging such people to do themselves harm, they tell them that sitting in chairs is also fine.

I struggle with this. I know for a fact and through my own personal experience that the traditional posture is critcal to zazen practice. I've also seen a number of people who truly cannot get into that posture but want to do zazen anyway. In my experience, these people always -- always -- find a way to either do what's necessary to prepare their bodies for the correct posture or, if that's not possible, to find some reasonable compromise. Will they get enlightened this way? Beats me! But I think some of them will find what they're looking for. They have as much chance of that as anyone else.

On the other hand, if they're not so keen on zazen in the first place they just give it up.

Zazen practice requires a certain degree of commitment. It's just like anything else worth doing. I try to deal with this the way I'd deal with someone who wanted instructions on how to play bass.

If they had all their fingers, I'd show them the standard method for playing bass and tell them to practice a lot. If they had just one finger on their left hand (and they were right handed) but they were very committed to playing bass in spite of this, I'd try to work with them to find a way to play. Django Reinhardt was a brilliant guitarist who could only use two of the fingers on his left hand. He was committed and found a way.

If, on the other hand, I had a student who had all his fingers but just didn't want to use them or to practice regularly, I'd tell him to get another teacher. I might even tell him he's not going to get very far with that attitude. Maybe that's not what he wants to hear. Maybe he won't like me for saying that. But hearing it might do him a bit of good.

If I were writing a standard book on bass playing I would tend to pitch it for people with all their fingers who were willing to practice. I'd tell them their fingers might hurt or even bleed a little at first, but that this would go away with continued practice. I'd encourage them not to give up just because it hurts at first. I'd tell them the pain was worthwhile. Because it was for me.

I wouldn't use up a lot of space in that book dealing with the problems of playing bass with one finger. I would figure that people with special needs like that would find their own way to either make what I wrote work for them, or find someone who could help them individually.

This is how I feel about zazen practice. I think that the vast majority of people can do the standard pose. Some may need to work at it. Others can do it right away. But there's a reason that pose has been standard for 2,500 years. It is not arbitrary. It is worth working at, if that's what it takes. I don't tell the general public it's fine to use chairs because I don't think that helps anyone very much. It only encourages people who don't want to bother with the traditional posture not to work at it. I figure those who actually need to use chairs will find their own way just like a guy who really wants to play bass but only has one finger.

I worked at the posture. It hurt. But it was worthwhile. I'm glad I put in the effort and I'm glad I had a teacher who pushed me to do so, who saw that I could do the posture if I tried.


(Sorry for yelling, but whenever I say anything about the traditional posture I get a dozen commenters screaming bloody murder about full lotus.)

Monday, April 02, 2012

Spiritual Tourism and Spiritual Journalism

I'm almost done with an e-book that will be titled Hardcore Zen Strikes Again! and will consist mainly of articles I wrote back in the early 2000's for my first website. Most of these articles haven't been available since around 2003 when I took them off the web in anticipation of the release of my book Hardcore Zen. I've added new introductions and afterwords to each of the articles as well as a new introduction and afterword to the book as a whole. Plus I've also included a chapter that was cut out of Hardcore Zen and an article I wrote for a magazine I'll bet none of you out there has ever even heard of.

And there'll be another new item soon too. People started talking about an audio book version of Hardcore Zen almost as soon as the book was released. But nobody ever did anything. Around a year and a half a go a small record label approached me with a concrete offer to do the audio book. When I mentioned this to the publishers of the printed book, they were like, "Don't do it with them! We'll do an audio book!" OK, said I, let's do it.

Then I waited, and waited, and waited some more. After about six months of this I asked the publishers what was going on. "We don't wanna do it anymore," they said.

Oh. OK. Thanks for letting me know, I replied.

So I decided to do it myself. My friend Pirooz Kaleyah, director of Shoplifting from American Apparel, gave me a microphone. I plugged it into my MacBook, opened up Garage Band and started reading the book out loud. It's a pretty D.I.Y. thing, but it sounds good. Almost professional!

I added some of the actual music I talk about in the text and a few other surprises to try to give a bit of extra value to people who've already read the book. I'll be plugging both of these like mad here once they're done.


OK. So what about the subject of "spiritual tourism" and "spiritual journalism" mentioned in the title of this piece?

The response my last blog posting got me started thinking about the difference between what I think of as spiritual tourism and spiritual journalism and actual Buddhist practice. I need to be clear from the outset: Spiritual tourism and journalism are not bad things. In fact I appreciate them. Especially some of the journalism that's being produced these days. But I think a lot of people are getting confused and think that they're the same thing as Buddhist practice. Or they appear to think that Buddhist practice in the 21st century ought to resemble spiritual tourism and journalism more.

Spiritual tourism and journalism both involve going out into the big wide world and sampling a little bit of a lot of different types of spiritual practices. In the case of spiritual journalism it's essential to do this. A person who wishes to write about a wide variety of spiritual practices needs to know about a wide variety of spiritual practices. She needs to read about them and to experience them. She needs to know the differences between them and the historical reasons for those differences.

In the case of spiritual tourism, it's perfectly acceptable to go around to various spiritual centers and suchlike and see what's out there.

But in doing either of these activities, it is impossible to get any real depth of experience in any of the the spiritual practices you sample. You cannot get deeply and fully into a practice that takes decades to develop by taking a weekend retreat or a week-long retreat or a month-long retreat. You sure can't get that by stopping by for the Saturday morning service a few times.

In my case, I chose a different path. But this is kind of the way I like to do things. For example, ever since I was a little kid I wanted to go to Japan. When I became an adult I figured it was at last possible for me to really go there. But I didn't want to experience Japan as a tourist. I didn't want to run over there and spend a week gawking at the sights in various cities. I wanted to deeply experience Japan. And to do that I had to live there, full time, for at least a year, I figured.

I found a way to do that by joining the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program. And after that I really immersed myself by getting a job at Tsuburaya Productions, a company one could argue is an important producer of Japanese culture. I lived in a Japanese house, married a Japanese woman, and I spoke and read Japanese every single day for eleven years. It was about the Japanese-est Japan experience one could have.

I took this even further by limiting my Japan focus even more narrowly. In my decade-plus of living in Japan I rarely left Tokyo and its suburbs. I loved Tokyo and wanted to thoroughly experience just that one city. In order to do so, I had to limit my experience of the rest of Japan. I visited Osaka and Kyoto and Sapporo and a few other cities. But those were tourist excursions. I lived in Tokyo.

I'm not trying to say I'm a better person than someone who just visits Japan, or that I'm harder or tougher or whatever. But I am saying that my experience of Japan was almost entirely different from the kind of experience you get as a tourist.

In terms of Buddhist practice, you really need this kind of immersion. You have to pick one teacher and stick with that teacher for a long time. In doing so, you learn your teacher's ways very thoroughly. But you necessarily miss out on having what one might call a "well-rounded understanding" of Buddhism as a whole.

I've taken some flak from people who think it's a terrible thing that I don't know much about Buddhism beyond what I learned from my two teachers. And if I were trying to be a spiritual journalist, maybe they'd have a point. But I'm not. I realize that by writing a blog I tend to invite people to think of me that way. I believe I've made it clear on a number of occasions that I'm not a journalist. But I don't expect every one to read every last bit of writing I put up on the Interwebs.

That doesn't mean I have no right to talk about the other things I see going on out there. It's just that my perspective is that of a practitioner, not that of a journalist.

The fact that I have such a narrow focus in terms of Buddhism does not make me unique at all. It makes me an oddity to those who mistake me for a spiritual journalist. But among Buddhists, it's perfectly normal. In fact, when I go to places like Tassajara I see it even more clearly. A student of San Francisco Zen Center teacher Norman Fischer, for example, will often be almost completely ignorant of the teachings of San Francisco Zen Center teachers Steve Stuckey or Reb Anderson. The focus is that narrow, even though they often live right next to each other in the same gosh darned temple. This is very typical of the way things are done in Zen practice, as well as in all other forms of Buddhism.

I've actually got a more well-rounded understanding of Buddhism than most Buddhists I know since I travel so much. I often end up telling people at the Zen centers I visit about how their practices differ from what folks do a couple towns away -- often even when the temples in question are in the very same lineage.

There is nothing wrong with being a journalist or tourist who has had a tongue tip taste of all the things on offer from the vast smorgasbord of spiritual practices available these days. It's fine. But their bellies are so full after all that sampling that they usually don't have room to enjoy a full meal of just one dish. And that is a very different experience.